The Enduring Style Of Aaron Sorkin

With his signature writing style, eye for drama (and melodrama), and a continued championing of intellect and wit, award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin returns to the silver screen with Molly’s Game, his directorial debut.

Both beloved and reviled, Sorkin’s writing has over the years been either impressive or off-putting — or both at the same time. There is rhythm and cadence to what he writes, a clear love for the material and characters, and always a message. But sometimes he misses the forest through the trees, and sometimes he swings wildly between being too blunt and too arcane.

Still, Sorkin, a playwright by admission, has written some the most uplifting, intense, and memorable speeches in film and television history. As regarded as he is, Sorkin is careful with what he writes and creates: he only has four series to his name, and just a handful of films, but he sure does leave his mark.

In the wake of Molly’s Game, which in a first for Sorkin features a female lead (Jessica Chastain), let’s take a look at some of the writer’s trends and styles over his career.

Lofty Speeches

There is nothing more signature Sorkin than a beautiful, idealistic speech delivered by a great actor about some grand idea and accompanied by a sweeping score. From the monologues of Josiah Bartlett, our favourite fictitious commander-in-chief, to those of sports anchor Casey McCall; from the eloquence of Tom Cruise (A Few Good Men), to the tense words of Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War), Sorkin has some wonderfully stirring speeches to his credit. What’s more, in or around many of these speeches, there is either a jarring point to be made or a sharp barb to be sent. Often Sorkin’s big speech deliverers are in the right and know how to hammer home their argument, putting down naysayers in the process. Just check out Martin Sheen’s big entrance in the pilot of The West Wing.

Don Quixote

Sorkin has read Cervantes’ great work and has modelled many, many characters after him, creating them with a nice blend of idealism and foolishness. He believes that the more you strive for intelligence and the more passionate you are, the more successful you will be. Simultaneously, hubris is a flaw, and quirks and idiosyncrasies make for funnier and more relatable characters. See: Dan Rydell in Sports Night, Josh Lyman in West Wing, Matt Albie in Studio 60, Jim Harper in The Newsroom.

Of course, Sorkin’s characters can come off as condescending, and a lot of such discussion is off-putting and cheesy, but he wants everyone to be more dedicated and learned, and while he doesn’t have a disdain for the unintelligent necessarily, he loathes those who are ignorant and wilfully stupid.

The West Wing is all about hope and dedication, upholding the idea that those sent to work for the country are doing so by trying hard and conducting self-sacrificing duty. The same goes for The Newsroom, which stresses truth and honesty above all else (and may be too idealistic now in such a cynical news cycle). Even Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip feature characters who not only love what they do, but think it’s mighty, symbolically important.

However, in The Social Network, our quixotic character is shown as weak and pays for his optimism. Eduardo Saverin, as portrayed by Andrew Garfield, is bested by a cocky, manipulative, and brilliant Mark Zuckerberg. Saverin has a brilliant idea, but can’t see as far as Zuckerberg. With his trust misplaced, he becomes less Quixote and more Sancho Panza: abused and made a fool. And like Sancho, he has a happy ending after regaining his footing, because Saverin is still a billionaire living halfway around the world.

A Women Problem

For every C.J. Cregg from The West Wing, there are a handful of Josh Lymans and Will McAvoys. Sorkin’s shows are notoriously male-dominated (The West Wing, Studio 60), and/or men are ultimately the focus of the entire story (Steve Jobs, The Social Network). Not every woman gets consistently strong writing and plotlines. Just about everyone, in one way or another, gets involved in romantic subplots as well.

The main issue, though, is that even when Sorkin writes both men and women the same initially, he doesn’t give them the same opportunities and inevitably falls back on stereotypes for the women. He likes when they are smart but clumsy, brilliant but technologically or socially inept. This works once in a while, but not when every woman is this way, especially those who are supposed to be successful and talented.

Notoriously, Sorkin came under fire for the treatment of the women characters he created on The Newsroom, conveniently changing their established intellect and agency to hysterics and helplessness when it was convenient. Also, with the exception of Allison Janney’s Cregg, most of the women he writes end up screwing something up romantically, with the male having also done wrong but still being vindicated.

Bad Timing and Cancellations

Sorkin has written four dramas for television (or three for television and one for HBO, because it’s not television, its HBO), three of which were cancelled. And the fourth he resigned from, and it then went on without him. The show that set that stage for Sorkin, Sports Night, is a compelling drama that came before anyone knew that Sorkin was great at writing drama, which is why Sports Night was made as a comedy. The show ran for two years, was given a terrible time slot during the week (remember time slots?), and also a laugh track for reasons beyond understanding.

While that show was too soon, his later ill-fated series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was too late. For the most part, audiences weren’t as in love with the mysticism and aura of Hollywood as Sorkin was, and getting behind a show that wanted to champion the great history of the town wasn’t happening. That NBC released another show about a sketch program—an actual comedy—that same year with a similar name didn’t help marketing. That the show was 30 Rock and an instant and long-lasting hit didn’t help, either. Still, there were a handful of great episodes on this series (which starred Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, and Sarah Paulson), including a final, riveting stretch that was certainly among the best sequence of episodes that Sorkin has written.

More recently, The Newsroom ended after three seasons, and was just a little too high-minded and idealistic for the current world. Thank goodness that The West Wing  was made when it was; however incredible it was, it’s a hard watch at present day, considering the toxic political climate.

Critical Love, Public Indifference

Sorkin has a trend of making some quality drama that is a critical darling but not really accessible or appreciated by the public at large. Steve Jobs perhaps distills this trend ideally. It’s a brilliantly acted, brilliantly written, cleverly constructed drama. By far the best told story about the Apple founder, it isn’t just a straightforward biopic (like the aimless, boring Jobs with Ashton Kutcher); Jobs follows the visionary at three critical points in his life.

Played by Michael Fassbender, Jobs finds himself behind the scenes (of course) dealing with family, friends, and employees ahead of three big product unveilings over the course of his career. The film consists only of these three lengthy scenes, detailing the evolution of thought and relationships in Jobs’ life, and making for surprisingly riveting drama.

Perhaps Molly’s Game, with a strong cast that includes Idris Elba, Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, and a great actress in the lead, will break the mold of Sorkin’s struggles, embrace his strengths, and shake things up a bit. Here’s hoping.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.